Whether releasing albums on his Machete label, playing live shows around the Bay Area, or teaching music courses at local colleges, Oakland-based percussionist and bandleader John Santos has arguably been one of the most visible and impactful artists on the local music scene for several decades. Earlier this year, the Grammy-nominated Latin Jazz musician had gigs booked from March to December. But one by one, they were all canceled by the pandemic.
“It’s just taken the work away,” said Santos. “The income situation is bad, and it means that we’re dipping into our very humble savings. It’s not an ideal situation.”
Santos had never collected a penny of unemployment until this year. The little bit he does receive is due to the loss of his teaching jobs—a small portion of his livelihood, he said—and not his work as a professional musician, because the state unemployment office didn’t recognize his work as an independent contractor. “When I applied as an artist, I was turned down. When I applied because of missing the class work, I was accepted,” he said. “I’m grateful that I was able to collect a little bit. It’s certainly helping.”
Santos is one of many musicians and performers in the Bay Area struggling to offset the loss of income during the pandemic, in part because they often don’t always meet the qualifications for unemployment benefits.
According to Beth Zare of the Musicians Union Local 6 in San Francisco, which also represents Oakland-based musicians, applying for and getting unemployment hasn’t been easy for musicians because their business arrangements are often complex. Many work multiple gigs per year as independent contractors, but they don’t always get a W-2 form from their employers, one of the requirements for receiving unemployment. Employers also often prefer to classify musicians as temporary workers, said Zare, so they don’t have to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes or offer benefits.
“Everyone is just trying to survive. There’s no end in sight for when we can all go back to work. That’s a pretty scary feeling for musicians, and certainly for those who made the bulk of their money from publicly performing,” she said.
On January 1, 2020, California began implementing AB5, a law that makes it harder for employers to classify some workers as independent contractors. But the law was amended in April to exempt a vast majority of musicians, with the exception of those working in symphonies, on large theatrical productions, and at theme parks.
In an effort to help its members navigate the complicated world of government unemployment benefits and relief funds during COVID, the Musicians Union Local 6, which is part of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) representing professional musicians in the U.S. and Canada, stepped in to offer bi-weekly meetings through the California Labor Federation. The AFM also provides information on its website about how musicians can apply for unemployment benefits; another labor federation, AFL-CIO, provides information organized by state since each state administers its own unemployment program.
Because applying for unemployment is so complicated for musicians, however, they often just rely on speaking with peers and word of mouth, said Zare. “We found that the most helpful information was coming from other members who had been successful, who had filled out forms and knew where to look on the site,” she said.
Musicians Just Trying to Survive
Zare, who is also a musician—she plays the French horn in Bay Area orchestras, but hasn’t had a live performance in months—misses interacting with other musicians and getting feedback from audiences, but is grateful for her day job with the union.
She noted that union members young and old have been equally hard hit by the pandemic. But where younger musicians can still look forward to a long career, she said, the stakes are arguably higher for those closer to retirement. “They may have played their last concert without knowing it,” she said.
Raquel Berlind is an Oakland-based singer and composer who goes by the stage name Raq Filipina. She used to be a graphic designer but left that career to focus on her music. Her husband, Alexey Berlind, is a percussionist and arranger. Both perform a variety of music genres, including jazz, Cuban, and Brazilian music, which Raquel sings in Tagalog and English.
Since March, gigs have completely dried up for the Berlinds. “When the pandemic happened, the financial pandemic hit,” said Raquel. Although she has a monthly pension from a previous job, and Alexey works full time for the UC Berkeley School of Law’s Human Rights Center, the lack of performances has had a noticeable impact on their income.
“After a long wait, and I mean a really long wait, we were able to get the EDD,” said Alexey, referring to California’s unemployment benefit program. The couple said it was three or four months before they received any money. “It would have been a catastrophe for somebody who needed the money soon,” said Alexey.
Raquel’s pension and the EDD checks cover most of the household costs, but not everything. “We haven’t gone into debt yet, but eventually that’s probably going to happen. We’re hoping to hold out until gigs pick up again,” said Alexey.
Unlike some musicians, the Berlinds have been able to perform here and there, albeit online. They performed in two online “Get Out the Vote” programs, one of which was viewed in the U.S. and the Philippines. The couple said they’ve also been making recordings over the last several months of songs having to do with the pandemic.
What do musicians miss most?
Michelle (Chelle) Jacques is an Oakland-based singer and the artistic director of Chelle and Friends, which performs New Orleans-style jazz and Creole music. Everything that Jacques does relates to music, and before the pandemic, she said about 75% of her time was devoted to singing and related jobs. During the pandemic, however, Jacques has performed just one concert, in a friend’s yard.
Still, she’s grateful for the creative outlets she continues to have. “I’ve been blessed, unlike a lot of people. I’m still able to teach and there are so many of my friends who are not,” she said.
Jacques, who’s been singing for 30 years, is a part-time teacher at Oakland School for the Arts, where her courses range from chorus to solo repertoire to hip hop and jazz. She is also the choir director at Plymouth United Church of Christ, also known as The Jazz and Justice Church. “I sing on Sundays, but since there’s no choir right now—it’s not the same as being on a stage, and I love being on stage and sharing my music,” she said. “The people, the crowd, the applause. The feeling that you’ve touched somebody. The smiles, the thank-you’s, the joy, the excitement.”
The one time that Jacques gets to sing these days is when she meets with her Berlin-based voice coach, with whom she’s been working for over five years, over Skype. The loss of performing and social interaction, she said, is taking a toll. “I’m miserable. I’m sleeping a lot. I’m feeling it physically, mentally, deep in my soul. It’s heartbreaking. I don’t even feel creative anymore.”
Latin Jazz artist Santos also misses playing for an audience and with bandmates. But despite releasing a new album in August, “Art of the Descarga”—usually a reason to book shows—he’s in no hurry to get back on stage in a crowded space.
“People are antsy to get together and play, which I understand,” he said. “Me too, but we can’t have a bunch of people in a room rehearsing, so it just kills any possibility of doing anything.”
Before the pandemic, about 50% of Santos’ time was spent performing and recording and half was spent teaching classes and giving lectures. The teaching has all but disappeared because most of the classes that he used to teach—like his conga drumming class with 25 students at the College of San Mateo—don’t lend themselves to an online format.
“That’s impossible to do online,” he said of the drumming course. “The only class that I’m teaching is a lecture class, The Latin American Roots of Jazz, which I can do online fairly effectively because I’m talking, playing examples, and showing slides, video, and clips.”
Finding the silver linings
Some musicians have found benefits to the lockdown, such as having more time to compose or record or be with family. One of the benefits of the lockdown for Jacques has been that she is learning how to use technology to arrange songs and record music in new ways.
Santos, too, is finding the positives. “We strive to rise to the occasion, so we take some lemons and make some lemonade. Being here in the house has given me a little more time to read and to practice,” he said. Having more time has also allowed Santos to “kind of reinvent myself online in order to do the teaching that I’m doing.” He’s picked up various online lecture gigs, including a four-part series for the Museum of the African Diaspora.
One advantage of the pandemic for the Berlinds is that they cherish being together and creating music and videos of Raquel’s songs. Another unexpected benefit has been a reduction in stress for Raquel. “Quarantining at home has good results for me as a musician and songwriter. My stress level is not as high as before.”
The Berlinds have also done much more recording, including recently finishing the final mix of their newest song, “Save the World, Spread the Word,” with renowned Bay Area music producer, Greg Landau.
However, Raquel and Alexey realize that not all musicians are as fortunate as they are. “So many of our friends and colleagues are full time musicians, who supplement their incomes with teaching here and there and I think the pandemic has been a catastrophe for them,” said Alexey. “This is a country that doesn’t particularly support the artists.”
Santos also believes that artists in the U.S. often don’t receive the respect they deserve. “If you work as an artist, it’s still looked at as a hobby. They’ll ask you, ‘What’s your real job? What do you do besides music?’ But artists, in general, are really essential workers. Can you imagine now, any time, not having art and music?”